Written at the end of a month with not much prose to show…
Initially, it seemed a simple task: purge and reduce by half the photo albums I’d been assembling since girlhood. There were entire albums devoted to trips, side trips, and detours; a portfolio of business and academic endeavors; albums devoted to beloved dogs and critters; others plastered with lovers and ex’s, trysts, and tarantellas; a half a dozen bulging with family branches and offshoots, and a daughter, son in law, and grandkids. There were 72 albums in total; some wallet sized or 4×6 inches, some 8×10, and far too many 11×17 inches.
What was my intention, my strategy, in morphing from maid to crone, from fairy tales to closure fairy? Was it to show, not tell the bones or silhouette of a life? Would these saved images reveal a life of growth or dissipation? Would it have been better to write a bunch of 6 word stories accompanied by a few fabulous shots? Purpose, presence, perseverance, perspiration, persnickityness, prosperity? Mama tried, dad died, I endured? Never be perfect; always be interesting? Not quite what I had envisioned?
Could I reduce it even further, to one word to describe a year or a decade? Think of the space I’d save reducing six plus decades to: clueless, confused, conflicted, confident, contrived, confounded…? What words would you use to reduce your years to minimal pithy prose? Could a sentence meaningfully describe a passage of time, and a single page portray my 0 to ‘never mind how old I am’ journey? To get into grad school, I had to submit a 650 word essay My Life in Brief—So Far. I was 30ish, 3 marriages and counting, one child, numerous jobs, well read and traveled, had danced on tabletops in Greece and Georgetown D.C., experimented, made mistakes… I tore up version four and asked what did the people that would read this want to know? Then I wrote about what I’d learned and didn’t know, what values were important. I got in!
Is a scrapbook memoir? The numerous pieces I’d preserved and pasted for posterity didn’t want to reduce to shrunken head size. And yet, others had summed up their time on this planet in concise terms, or via succinct tombstone epitaphs. Crooner Dean Martin’s headstone reads: ‘everybody loves somebody sometimes.’ Robert Frost’s says: ‘I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.’ Poe’s gravestone in Baltimore: ‘quoth the raven, nevermore.’ Betty Davis’ has one I’d like to steal, ‘she did it the hard way.’ And though there’s no known gravestone for Alexander the Great, his epitaph is: ‘a tomb somewhere suffices him for whom the world was not enough.’
Were there better ways to illustrate the breadth and depth of a life? What if I graffiti’ed a tiny Marschke doll to represent Jo at age one, then did larger versions for each ensuing year? I concluded with my baggage, the 2021 version would be unwieldy—room sized. What about mounting all the pictures on a sweeping 8 foot high by 17 feet long mural? I realized it would look like this:
To say I’ve been a shutterbug packrat hardly scratches the surface. I’m more a herd of giant pachyderms. Where photos end, memorabilia that fills steamer trunks begins. There are post cards, exotic stamps, foreign coins, currency, & flags, swatches from clothing and a man’s kilt pin (don’t ask); pressed flowers; travel stickers and pins; inoculation records; movie and plane ticket stubs; newspaper & magazine clippings; itineraries and packing lists; brochures, fancy menus, and invitations; cards; charcoal sketches; love and definitely not love notes; rings, single earrings, & tarnished, engraved jewelry… There are also boxes of trinkets and what nots: corks, bottle caps, a mini plastic bull, abacus, and whistle; baby teeth and a crayoned drawing on a handkerchief; old driver licenses, thimbles, collector spoons and fridge magnets; small stones in odd shapes; holiday decorations; ball point pens, pendulums, coasters, swizzle sticks, mini magic tricks, travel games, odd puzzle pieces, and an unmatched sock … What’s in your memento drawer?
I was never the kind of person that could make a quiet exit. The women in the Peggy Lee song left just a wedding band and a note on the dresser that said ‘don’t smoke in bed.’ In Paul Simon’s song 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, there’s no mention of tossing treasures into a moving van. Dolly Parton got it down to a fine science in I Will Always Love You by singing ‘bittersweet memories is all I’m taking...’ I wouldn’t make a good refugee either. A few of my moving parties went on for days and included a cast of characters, 100s of boxes, several U Haul trucks, and enough booze to fill an Olympic sized swimming pool.
By now you’ve guessed the one thing I refused to do, as I sifted through mounds and pounds of debris, was to digitize the albums and mementos. I did consider it. I’d make an epic movie. First, you’d hear silly music and see flashes of childhood memories: being read The Cat in the Hat & Grimm’s grimmest stories; a string of multi-color lights and a jar of fire flies; playing Chutes & Ladders game; singing Farmer in the Dell, I’m a Little Teapot, & It’s a Small World songs accompanied by a ukulele; a kid yelling alleealleeinfree; a mini piano, dog with a star, and key and wind up car. Then Cat Steven would intone, ‘though you want to last forever, you know you never will…’(for maximum effect, he repeats the stanza). I’d fast forward through ugly adolescence, awkward poses, far out fashions and hairdos; bruises and scars; well-kept toys handed down and destroyed, dreams dashed… By the time I reached my crazy, terrible 20’s, the film was beginning to resemble A Clockwork Orange. I decided that wasn’t the way to go.
It was back to culling and reassembling albums, providing commentary and bumper sticker humor. Unfortunately, my slimmed down volumes felt woeful, anorexic. It was good the blurry shots and faces of strangers and strange places were gone, as were duplicates of exteriors taken from multiple angles. There they all were, villains, vixens, and vagabonds. Window views of landscapes, seasons, events, and time standing still. The story was evident to me, but to others…? Without words and wacky music, accessories and accoutrements, these scrapbooks were merely someone’s silly sashay by the seashore or hedonistic holiday. After I’m translated into another dimension, there won’t be anyone to fill in the blanks. That’s my responsibility.
Those that stumble across these volumes will be confabulated and might make up stuff as explanation. That wouldn’t do. So I began layering other things on pages that already had a background insert, 4 to 7 photos outlined with washi tape, and time/date/place info. For a family portrait and close ups page, I copied a poem by Henri Coulette and added a 3D door and frame round a pic of the four of us. The poet described a picture in a room in his house. Four gawky children, sans souci, three girls and a boy, pose, captured in a frame. He acknowledges his tribe when sunlight exposes gathered dust. They ‘return the favor’ by not growing up. I added a musical card insert as well. When you pressed the button, it played Send in the Clowns. Much better.
Another page was redone in the style of the Griffin et Sabine interactive books by Nick Bantock. I glued envelopes front side down and added personal notes and a page from a break up letter. A small brown paper bag fastened to the page held tickets from a rock concert, a back stage pass, and a swizzle stick containing a rock star’s presumed DNA. February sped by as I curated my way through dozens of scrapbooks. I added roadmaps as background, funny buttons & pins I’d collected, 3D letters and numbers, playing cards (lots of Jokers), and a paintbrush and a tiny vial of Jungle Gardenia perfume in honor of a fallen friend. A page showcasing the move to the plantation in NC sported paint chips, a fragment of 150 year old wallpaper, a handbill from an open house fete I threw Gone with the WindEX, and the bones of a story about the plantation’s marvelously curious founding family.
To solve the dilemma of how to include choice memorable incidents for which no picture had been snapped, therefore, no one would know there was a blank, I cheated. There was no pic of me at the National Mall burning a bra but plenty pics of others who’d been there that summer. I went online. That photo sure looked like my sunburned, braless back. Voila! There was no pic of the thief that stole my expensive camera and knocked me down in Annapolis. Clip art to the rescue, an incident report, and a line of crime scene tape…
When I was done reconfiguring the family albums, reduced from six to three dense books, I put them aside for a week. When I reopened one last week, it was like finding a clock that had been folded on the bias, and had reshaped itself into time zones. As I flipped through plastic shielded sheets, I nodded. Yes, there were the major events, people, and places that had occurred—the who, what, when, and where. Some pages still felt hollow if the why was missing, despite their being action comments, sounds, smells, textures, and perceptions. Did I need to add symbols, origami creatures, or something else, something that was eluding me?
The fate of the people and places I’d encountered was missing. Nuances were missing, the dances between insouciance and neglect, the stages and colors of grief after losing a person, dog, job, interest… Were these things essential? Was any of it necessary? An online friend recently remarked it ‘was okay to do nothing, leave no legacy.’ I compared his statement with what syndicated writer Michael Ventura wrote as he contemplated retiring. In To Sit On a Park Bench, he reminded that while there aren’t do-over time machines, and you’re gonna die anyway, a positive, benevolent attitude counts, even if all you do is sit on a bench, smile, and ‘behold’ life unfolding. Beholding without judging—like beauty—gives off powerful vibes. That’s something we’ve all been missing this past year. Perhaps that’s what I was trying to achieve—static moments in time to behold, enchant, surprise—to help understand the persons in these pictures at a moment in time.
My brother and I have frequently speculated about what our ancestor’s lives were like. Lacking pictures and precious few anecdotes or passed down heirlooms, we strive to fill in the blanks via ancestry trees and brief bios. I was attempting, in these scrapbooks, to insert enough information so future generations wouldn’t need to fill in too many blanks. But by doing this, was I taking away the mystery, the pleasure of pondering or forming one’s own conclusions? Is it better for someone to wonder if my puffy eyes were caused by crying or from being woken five times before the rooster crowed by my dog? What’s in your favorite albums–candid or posed shots?
Or was I simply overthinking this project that had snowballed? Should I keep the remaining pages simple and add a cryptic message at the end about having used steganography throughout to encrypt vital messages? That would surely drive a few next gen relatives crazy. Or would it suffice to declare this was not a memoir but interpretation of a life lived willfully, largely, artfully? I found a fitting quote for the front page of the last album; it sums up the creator of this crazy quilt collection. “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.” (T. Robbins)